In the last decade, compression socks have surfaced in the running community. Runners are sporting the many-colored socks not only to complete their fashionable running outfits, but to reap some physical benefits. Runners who swear by these socks have beliefs that they can prevent injuries, improve performance and lessen recovery time. What runner wouldn’t welcome these types of gains? Well..research on the effects is somewhat limited and tends to leave the benefit hypotheses invalidated for each of the above thoughts. Let’s take a look at the compression sock and understand if compression socks work for runners.
What Are Compression Socks?
Compression socks are elastic socks that come in varying levels of compression. The socks stretch from the heel, up over the ankle and generally go up to the knee. The socks are built to squeeze around the leg, compressing the muscles, veins and arteries in the legs. The compression starts stronger at the ankle and loosens slightly as it rises up toward the kneecap.
Why Compression Socks?
Compression socks in the medical field have been used for thousands of years, with evidence to support the like, but were in the forms of stockings, bandages, and bands. These were used for those patients who needed to increase blood flow in the legs. Those individuals who were immobile, bed ridden, or sit for lengthy periods of time have benefited from compression on the legs.
Given that need and knowledge of blood flow in the body, we can conclude how compression socks would be beneficial for this. The heart pumps oxygenated blood from the lungs to the extremities and muscles. The arteries are in charge of transporting this blood along with the deoxygentated blood back to the lungs. The compression helps to circulate the blood allowing for faster replenishment of oxygenated blood to the arteries, therefore faster movement to the muscles. With compression socks this is happening for the legs also reducing some negative movement of blood as effected by gravity. Compression equates to better circulation.
What Are the Benefits?
Upfront, as a runner, we can conclude that these ‘high socks’ provide protection from the terrain and the climate. While running trails, the skin is protected from dirt, mud, branches and rocks. Additionally, the runner’s legs are kept warm and can be used as an alternative to the restrictions of running tights.
Deeper from the surfaces we see potential gains from leg swelling & cramps and muscle pain & fatigue. The swelling & cramps are a benefit because the compression socks add support and allow for less work that the legs have to put forth. It also limits the amount of build up of fluids that cause swelling. Furthermore, the impacts could extend to the feet and ankles. Removal of the lactic acid that is produced as a waste with exercise can reduce muscle soreness and fatigue. Blood flow acts as the removal device for lactic acid and blood flow increases with compression.
Do They Work?
A study by the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2018 conducted a study on the coagulation and fibrinolytic activation (plasma clotting) during marathon running. The aim was to look at the impacts of wearing compression socks during strenuous physical activity where legs were consistently being used. It was concluded through the blood draws, pre and post run, that compression socks might aid in the reduction of the two tested attributes: coagulation and fibrinolytic activation. But, there were no significant findings that could make the hypothesis a fact, so further tests would need to be conducted.
I have been wearing compression socks, both pre and post running (rollerblading for my cross training) for three quarters of a year. Although I am only a sample of one person, I do believe that there are gains that I can pinpoint to the wearing of these socks. During running I would get a foot or leg that might start to go a little numb and post wearing the compression socks, this has no longer happened. Given that could be multiple other reasons, I take it with a grain of salt. However, I must say that wearing the socks coupled with the stretching I was already doing, seems to be complementing each other. Overall improvements while wearing the compression socks is marked as significantly improving the feeling of my leg muscles.
What Type to Buy?
The two biggest questions to understand when purchasing compression socks are the sizing and level of compression. Proper fitting will be important: overly tight socks will be uncomfortable and hard to darn each time you wear; overly loose and there will be no compression benefit and will likely become cumbersome with pounding the pavement or dirt. Be sure to measure different sections of the leg, ankle and foot to ensure proper fitting. Secondly, you will want to make sure you get some cool looking socks to show off at your next race.
The compression is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg); compression is increased with increased mmHg. There are four main categories of compression:
- 20 to 30 mmHg & more than 30 mmHg which are medical grade and generally used for the prevention of blood clots or people who are post surgery.
- Less than 15 mmHg & 15 to 20 mmHg are the non medical grade socks. These are generally for healthy and fit people who get tired legs from sitting and/or standing all the time. These types of compression will most likely be the use for active runners.
- It is important to consult your primary care doctor before using any medical grade compression, especially if you suffer from any issues with blood flow, nerve issues, or the like.
Given the information and studies conducted, we can simply conclude that compression socks will, in fact, improve blood flow to the legs. Speeding up the replenishment of oxygenated blood to the running limbs could decrease swelling and improve muscle function & recovery. It can’t hurt to try out a pair of non medical grade pair and make your own personal conclusions, but take a few measures to get the most for your money. Measure your legs and understand prior to the purchase, what you hope to get out of the socks. Research your leg issues and see if there are any other people out there who may have positive or negative comments. If able, talk to your medical provider and get their opinion given your medical health and wellness.